The Keane “Big Eyes” paintings that dominated the late Fifties and early Sixties (and inspired endless knock-offs) have been called everything from kitschy to haunting. What caused this artist to paint such huge eyes? Walter Keane cited the starving children in Auschwitz as his inspiration, but the truth is far stranger. Walter Keane didn’t paint the Big Eyes. He lied about it to the whole world while his wife spent hours in her studio, secretly painting away. Tim Burton’s film explores how a plucky lady who just fled one bad marriage could so quickly be drawn into another.
As the movie begins, Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) packs up her daughter and leaves her husband at a time when women just didn’t do that sort of thing. It’s a bold and courageous move, and Margaret quickly proves she’s got the chutzpah to back it up. She relocates to San Francisco, secures an apartment and a job, and earns extra money by painting portraits in the park. When she meets fellow artist Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), it seems as though everything is falling into place. This charming painter likes her work. He encourages her and treats her well, and the attention is, well, really nice. The only real problem is Margaret’s ex, who threatens to sue for custody of their daughter. But Walter can fix all that! They’ll get married and everything will be just fine. Admittedly, all of this happens rather quickly, but Walter is a boisterous, smooth-talking fellow, someone who could basically sell ice to an Eskimo.
Now married to an ambitious artist, Margaret finds her work displayed alongside Walter’s and up for sale. He claims credit for one of her paintings through an innocent mix-up, a revelation Margaret finds horrifying. She sternly tells him never to do it again, which weirdly seems to serve as a green light to do it all the time. He brushes it off, saying that they share the Keane name and that no one wants to buy women’s paintings. He directs Margaret’s work and plies her for answers, “What’s my inspiration?” as though most painters have a beautiful minion locked in a tower cranking out their work. The lie is soon so big that there’s no taking it back. People are buying the paintings, money is coming in, and the Keane name is becoming a household word. All too quickly it’s too late to set the record straight, and you can be certain that this is just fine with Walter.
Meanwhile, Margaret’s world grows smaller and smaller. The demand for her work keeps her painting nonstop, but she can’t tell her friends or her daughter what she’s doing. Not only is she living a lie, she’s essentially living in her own shadow. The Big Eyes paintings take over every aspect of life for the Keanes, but Margaret only is only allowed a backseat view.
Eventually the preposterous nature of their arrangement and Walter’s erratic behavior becomes too much for any sane person to take. Again Margaret piles her daughter into the car and leaves her husband, this time heading to Hawaii to build a new life. Fascinatingly, it’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses who befriend Margaret this time. Their teachings and companionship motivate her to stand up to Walter and reclaim her name, an awkward but triumphant process.
You could call Keane’s situation funny; you could call it a first world problem, but at heart it’s an abusive situation. Burton always deftly navigates the world of suburban darkness, successfully juxtaposing the appearance of normality with the sad and confining reality underneath. Thankfully, Margaret finds her way into the light, an inspiring message to anyone feeling trapped by circumstance.